Before visiting Honfleur, Normandy, for the day I looked at a French review website to see if there were any reviews of restaurants in the town. All I found, however, was a piece of advice that recommended avoiding the restaurants on the waterfront, which it described as ‘tourist traps’, and seeking out a restaurant in one of the side streets. My ‘Rough Guide to France’ was too heavy to take along, so I copied out the names and addresses of one or two restaurants that it listed. Unsurprisingly for a fishing port, they all seemed to specialise in seafood.
We spent about an hour and a half wandering around Honfleur and were amazed at the number of restaurants there are; you are certainly spoilt for choice, and if a bucket of mussels floats your boat you are in for a treat. We stopped and looked at one or two menus, including that of La Tortue (The Turtle) on the rue de l’Homme de Bois. It seemed particularly attractive, housed in one of the many old timber-frame buildings, and the set menu prices were also appealing since we weren’t looking to spend a fortune. About half an hour later we hadn’t seen anywhere that took our fancy more, but weren’t sure if we could find our way back. As it happened, I recognised one or two shops in the same street and it wasn’t long before we were having another look at the menu outside La Tortue, which is displayed in both French and English.
Lunch is normally served between noon and 2pm in France, and when we arrived at La Tortue at around 1pm the ground floor was already full. We were shown to the upstairs dining area and had the choice of any table. Soon after that a young couple arrived and a few minutes later a party of three. All of them were French speakers. There are actually two rooms upstairs and they can be booked for business lunches or dinners; the smaller one seats ten and the larger one twenty. We were seated in the larger of the two. I have mentioned that this was a timber-frame house, as are so many of the buildings in Honfleur which date from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It was an original touch that the exposed beams in the restaurant had been painted red in the section where we were sitting, whilst in another area they retained the natural dark colour of the wood. A great deal of thought has obviously been put into the dcor at La Tortue, with oriental artefacts and ornaments such as teapots complementing more modern western works of art. There were white linen tablecloths with square red napkins that matched the colour of the wooden beams.
At lunchtime there is a set menu at 19 Euros for three courses or 14 Euros for two courses (either a starter and main course or main course and dessert) followed by coffee. We decided to go for the 14 Euro option with main course and dessert. For the main course the choice was between pork fillet, hake in creamy cider sauce, poached salmon or a seasonal vegetarian option. (The vegetarian set menu is actually 17 Euros for three courses.) We both ordered the salmon. For dessert I chose ‘coussinet de pomme sauce caramel’, or apple in filo pastry with caramel sauce. My son deliberated between chocolate mousse and meringue with caramel sauce and custard, eventually picking the mousse. We had seen fruit juice mentioned on the menu and were very surprised to hear that there was no apple juice, as we had walked past goodness knows how many shops selling local apple juice and cider that morning. It didn’t really matter, though, and we decided on pineapple juice instead. This was 4 Euros per glass.
Drinks arrived quickly, and the waiter said he would be back with a jug of water. A small basket containing four slices of baguette was also brought. It wasn’t long at all before our main courses were served, this time by a different gentleman who I think was the restaurant owner. He was very quick to take our knives and forks away and return with fish knives and forks, a rarity these days. The salmon was served with a blend of olive oil and a creamy sauce, with a small portion of white rice and another of vegetables that consisted mainly of green beans, yellow peppers and thin strips of carrot the colours had been very carefully considered. It was absolutely delicious. The salmon was very tender and cooked to perfection, and the sauce was one of the best I have ever tasted. I resisted the temptation to have any bread as I wanted to leave room for dessert.
Our plates were cleared and shortly afterwards the desserts were served. I was a little surprised to be given a spoon, fork and knife to eat mine with, but I did in fact need the knife to cut the filo pastry at the bottom. The caramel sauce was very rich, and a sprinkling of grated pistachio nuts made an interesting touch, both visually and in terms of flavour. At least the apple made me feel not too guilty about having a dessert that probably contained quite a few calories. The chocolate mousse was served as two thin slices, artistically overlapping each other. Heaven for the taste buds, we both agreed, and beautifully presented too.
Coffee was served in tiny, tall, slender cups along with a small wrapped plain chocolate, just the kind I like. I heard a lady at another table asking if she could have a tisane instead of coffee, and this did not pose a problem.
The toilets are upstairs which would of course not be suitable for disabled people. They are, however, very clean and more modern than you might expect in such an old building!
The service was excellent, extremely efficient, and I have no complaints at all about it. After we had been given the bill, which came to 36 Euros altogether, I went downstairs and gave the waiter 40 Euros. He seemed to be about to give me some change and looked a little surprised when I said there was no need for change but I would like to keep the receipt. I had read that service is included in restaurant bills in France, but it did not actually state this and I thought it best to leave the 4 Euros anyway considering how much we had enjoyed our lunch.
After I returned home I discovered that the restaurant has its own website, and had I visited it before my trip it would have encouraged me even more to have lunch at La Tortue. There is a brief video with a commentary in French and background music by Erik Satie, who was born just a stone’s throw from the restaurant. The commentary tells you that the restaurant was named La Tortue after two people who, according to legend, fell in love on Turtle Island and vowed to open a restaurant in Honfleur. The owner of the restaurant appears in the video, explaining how quickly he made the decision to buy the house and open his restaurant there. He says that he wants his clientele to feel as though they are at home there and that he has decorated it in such a way as to promote this feeling. I think he has been very successful.
I was interested to see that the dessert I chose, the coussinet de pomme sauce caramel, is mentioned on the website as being one of the specialities. Savoury specialities are said to be sea bass fillet with tomato coulis, as well as foie gras pan fried in cider vinegar. There is also a mention of the fact that a menu specially for children is available. The website states that the restaurant is included in the Michelin Guide as well as the Guide du Routard.
I would definitely recommend a visit to this restaurant if you are in Honfleur; what I cannot vouch for of course is how busy it is in the evenings and whether or not a reservation is necessary for dinner. To anyone travelling to and from Le Havre, a stop in Honfleur is a delight if you have a little time on your hands, and lunch or dinner at La Tortue will enhance your visit. I sincerely hope I have the chance to go back one day.
36 rue de l’Homme de Bois
Open every day from April through to September. Closed on Monday evenings and all day Tuesday from October until March.
Tel. 02 31 81 24 60